News Feature | February 23, 2015

Pros And Cons Of Brackish Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Is brackish water the future of Texas? Depends who you ask.

"Texas aquifers could hold enough brackish water to quench Texas' thirst for more than 100 years. But [there are not] consistent guidelines on pumping the salty, mineral-loaded water from underground and doing so could affect the state's freshwater supply," according to the Victoria Advocate.

The use of brackish water is not new. "The Texas Water Development Board first formally identified brackish groundwater desalination as a supply strategy in the 2007 State Water Plan, though by that point more than 80 desalination plants were already operating around the state," according to the Texas Desalination Association.

Nevertheless, the debate over the pros and cons of this approach rages on. The Advocate broke down the arguments waged by its supporters and opponents.

On one side, desalination industry officials emphasize pragmatism, arguing that no matter what detractors say, brackish water is going to be part of the solution to the state's water challenges.

"It is estimated that Texas aquifers hold 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, said Kyle Frazier, Texas Desalination Association executive director. Texas uses about 16 million gallons of water annually, meaning the salty resource could sustain the state for more than 100 years," the report said.

Frazier said using brackish water is a no-brainer.

"We need a logical, clear-cut way to make use of this resource," Frazier said, per the report. "As the state is experiencing this long-term drought, we have to have a way to take care of this issue. Using brackish water would seem a logical step. So, 'No you can't' is really not a very good answer."

But environmentalists say there should be more research on the effects of brackish water desalination.

"Groundwater districts have enacted different rules to protect themselves from these possibilities. But the lines that delineate groundwater districts have been drawn on the surface and cannot stop actions outside the districts from affecting underground aquifers, which extend beyond their boundaries," the report said.

Gonzales County Underground Water Conservation District General Manager Greg Sengelmann explained why research would be useful.

"Before brackish water within a given aquifer can be used, research needs to be done to make sure the use of brackish water doesn't affect the freshwater or slightly brackish zones used to water cattle, he said," per the report.

"How far do we have to go away from the freshwater not to affect it? You have to test," Sengelmann said, per the report. "But testing is expensive, and developers want a guarantee they will get a permit."

The state is home to dozens of brackish groundwater desalination plants. There are 46 municipal brackish water desalination facilities that have opened across the state, the News Journal reported.

"Most projects are small, capable of providing less than three million gallons per day, often for rural areas," the New York Times reported.

The largest plant is located in El Paso. It is the world's largest inland desalination plant, according to its operators.